Roger White's Book: The Witness of Pebbles

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In 1981, two years after the publication of Roger White's first book of poetry, the second of what would eventually be three books of Roger White's poetry from the George Ronald publishers of Oxford …

In 1981, two years after the publication of Roger White's first book of poetry, the second of what would eventually be three books of Roger White's poetry from the George Ronald publishers of Oxford was published. This second volume contained nearly three times as many poems as the first. Geoffrey Nash, who had finished his doctorate on Thomas Carlyle and had just completed writing his first book: Iran's Secret Pogrom, wrote the introduction.

The following year, in 1982, Nash was to go on and write the first significant essay on the work of Roger White: The Heroic Soul and the Ordinary Self. The publication of this volume of poetry was timely. Robert Hayden, a Baha'i, and an American poet laureate in the 1970s, had died the previous year. He had been a Baha'i and a poet for over forty years. In some important ways the Baha'i consciousness in world literature that this book is discussing found its first significant poetic expression in the poetry of Robert Hayden. John Hatcher points out that Hayden came of age as a poet in the early forties, during the first teaching Plan, 1937-1944. A Baha'i consciousness slowly grew in his poetic expression beginning in 1943 when he joined the Baha'i Faith, although it did not become obvious, did not express significant Baha'i themes, until at least 1962 in Hayden's collection A Ballad of Remembrance.

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  • 1. (ii) THE WITNESS OF PEBBLES, 1981 Two years later, in 1981, the second of what would eventually be three books of Roger White's poetry from the George Ronald publishers of Oxford was published. This second volume contained nearly three times as many poems as the first. Geoffrey Nash, who had finished his doctorate on Thomas Carlyle and had just completed writing Iran's Secret Pogrom, wrote the introduction. The following year, in 1982, Nash was to go on and write the first significant essay on the work of Roger White: The Heroic Soul and the Ordinary Self.1 The publication of this volume of poetry was timely. Robert Hayden, a Baha'i and an American poet laureate in the 1970s, had died the previous year. He had been a Baha'i and a poet for over forty years. In some important ways the Baha'i consciousness in world literature that this book is discussing found its first significant poetic expression in the poetry of Robert Hayden. John Hatcher points out that Hayden came of age as a poet in the early forties, during the first teaching Plan, 1937-1944. A Baha'i consciousness slowly grew in his poetic expression beginning in 1943 when he joined the Baha'i Faith, although it did not become obvious, did not express significant Baha'i themes, until at least 1962 in Hayden's collection A Ballad of Remembrance.2 It should be noted, though, that Hayden became poet laureate for the library of Congress from 1969 to 1980. White had begun writing poetry and a poetry clearly influenced by the teachings of the Baha'i Faith perhaps beginning in the early 1950s. 1 1 Geoffrey Nash, "The Heroic Soul and the Ordinary Self," Baha'i Studies: Vol.10, 1982, pp.23-31; that same year a professor of English at the University of Tel-Aviv, Alex Aronson, reviewed the first two books of White's poetry. His review appeared in World Order, Summer 1982, pp.60-63. 2 Contained all of Hayden's poetry from 1940 to 1962. 1
  • 2. It is not my purpose to examine the minutiae connected with who was the first poet to write poems influenced by this new religion. Both poets were writing poems as early as the 1940s. I think I'd give the nod to Hayden as the first poet on the block by a clear margin. But, it seems to me, this emergence of a Baha'i consciousness is more of a process and both these poets were involved in the process.3 This book focuses on White's part. White fully achieved, if there was any doubt before, with this latest volume of poetry, what literary critic A. Alvarez in 1962 said that poetry needed: 'a new seriousness.' This he defined as: "the poet's ability and willingness to face the full range of his experience with his full intelligence; not to take the easy exits of either the conventional response or choking incoherence."4 Poets, Alvarez went on, needed to cope openly with the quick of their experience. This was what he called 'a new depth poetry.' White had already begun to find this depth by 1962 when Alvarez wrote this and, by 1981 some two decades later, he had made out of his rich internal resources and self-contained strength his own style and his own identity. “Great poetry,” wrote Michael Lind in The Hudson Review, “has been and will continue to be written about private life.”5 White’s attitude to the partisan politics of his day was one of aloofness, a dispassionate indifference; his concern was a new res publica, a new Order, one he had been associated with since the late 1940s. 3 The emergence of a Baha'i consciousness in world literature, when examined with an academic microscope, will be found to have taken place in a range of writings by a range of authors. An examination of the subject 'world literature' in an historical perspective could be seen to emerge in the late nineteenth century; if one examines the subject 'world literature' on the Internet a multiplicity of possibilities are suggested. This book is concerned virtually entirely with Roger White's contribution to the emergence of what is quite obviously a complex and bigger picture. 4 A. Alvarez, Beyond All the Fiddle: Essays 1955-1967, Allen Lane, London, 1968, p.40. 5 Michael Lind, “Comment: Our Country and Our Culture,” The Hudson Review, spring, 2002. 2
  • 3. The Witness of Pebbles, as White called this new volume, was dedicated "to all who witness in life and death."6 The title 'pebbles' came from Baha'u'llah's writings where He refers to His revelation enabling "every least pebble to resound with Thy praise."7 Whether one views this corpus of poems from a literary or a non-literary standpoint, it is great poetry. T.S. Eliot once argued that 'great poetry' had to be based on a great philosophy. "We can hardly doubt," he put it "that the truest philosophy is the best material for the greatest poet." White, of course, derives his philosophy from the Baha'i Faith. His poetic inspiration, the poets who have clearly had an influence on him, comes from George Herbert, Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot among others, although White once wrote in an essay8 that he felt the critical inspiration behind his poetry were holy souls who had passed on to the next world and influenced his writing in quite inexplicable ways. For years White had been his own Aristotle laying down the laws his poetry was subject to. There is a deep and important relationship between philosophical thought about poetry and poetry.9 These essays about White's poetry shine a light on some of that subtle and not-so-subtle relationship. It is a relationship that results, for this critic anyway, in the diffusion of a tone and spirit of unity, a complex unity that blends and fuses so much of that rag-and-bone-shop of life into a synthesis through White's imaginative power. For the essence of the poetic process is its "unifying and harmonizing activity."10 6 Roger White, The Witness of Pebbles, George Ronald, Oxford, 1981, p.v. 7 idem In "Poetic Truth: Three Interpretations," Tzvetan Todorov in Essays in Criticism, 1988, p.107. idem 8 Roger White, "An Articulate Silence," Essay Sent to Author, April 1991 9 Richard Kuhns, Literature and Philosophy: Structures of Experience, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1971, p.22. 10 David Daiches, Critical Approaches to Literature, 2nd edition, Longman, London, 1981(1956), p.110. Daiches describes Coleridge's view of the nature of the poetic process in these words. 3
  • 4. One of the means White uses to get at truth is to examine the lives of historical figures. Like Shakespeare, Euripides or one of a host of others, White translates the great truths of his philosophy into a comprehensive text-book on how to live. But like the literary outputs of all the great poets and dramatists of history, White's text-book requires some work from his readers. His is not a how-to manual, not systematic in its organization, perhaps 'creative-resource-manual' might be a better comparison than text-book, for there is little that is set out in a sequenced, ordered, way that covers the material. It is impossible to read White's poetry without feeling that we are being initiated into the company of a unique personality-a personality as original and authentic as it is intellectually thought-provoking and a delight to the mind, a personality who defined himself through his poetry, a work of art that is produced by a special handling of language. In the first section of this resource manual, containing some twenty-eight poems, White does what Wordsworth did at the dawn of this modern age: he gives the spirit of the past a restoration, a transformation. White is that poet of memory and one can learn a great deal about Baha'i history and its philosophy by examining some of the poems here. Some of that history is recent; for example, the passing of Hand of the Cause A.Q. Faizi in 1980. White gives us a sonnet in rhyming couplets. But it's not the form that impresses so much as the content. Here is one of many examples of spiritual history being rendered, as the poet Roethke said it should be rendered, by dramatic poetry.11 White brings to the poem a sharp sense of who and what Faizi was. This sharp sense of another person brings to White, paradoxically, a heightened awareness of his own self and the self of others. It also allows him to make those 11 Ann T. Forster,Theodore Roethke's Meditative Sequences, Edwin Mellen Press, Queenston, Ontario, 1985, p.30. ibid., p.5. 4
  • 5. "intuitive leaps" which Roethke says "are one of the ways man.....approaches the divine-in this comprehensive act, the really good poem." I'd like to take you through the poem In Memoriam: A.Q. Faizi12 commenting occasionally to make a point: The children by the upturned sod strew flowers, weeping. Only God Who holds the slightest winged thing dear knows all the sweetness folded here. And so it was for those who knew Hand of the Cause Faizi: sweetness was the operative word. This was no intuitive leap. But in the second half of the octave White writes: Were such love possible? ask we who dole it with economy, squander doubt and hoard affection in private vaults beyond detection. After warming us up in the first four lines with sentiments of tender-loving care, White brings us down-to-earth, not so much with an intuitive leap, but with an honest statement, pithy and poignant, of human inadequacy. He continues, back to Faizi's funeral ceremony: On Carmel trails the sun's gilt sleeve as we chilled mourners slowly leave ibid.,p.6. 12 Roger White, op.cit., p.14. 5
  • 6. And then comes the intuitive leap: to seize the thought this death installs: who'd serve the King must love His thralls. Of course the idea is not entirely intuitive, but this last couplet is clearly, for me anyway, the climax of the poem. For me there is surprise, truth, wisdom, an idea that is unfamiliar that White makes familiar. There is a loveliness in White's craft. Sometimes a simplistic, idealistic, coherent view of a person can turn out to be too brittle for the complex facts of a life--and the biographer must shift grounds. That is not the case here. There is in White's work a sensitivity to "the sophisticated complexity of life"13 that the great post-WWII American poet Robert Lowell said was critical to any successful poetry. But however complex the idea, there is a simplicity too. It is not a simplicity that orders experience, rather, it is a simplicity that, in the words of Theodore Roethke, attends "an experience with the conviction that there is order in it." White is simply giving voice to a truth inherent in the death of the beloved Hand of the Cause, namely, that he must be loved--and why. White is also giving us a poem that "is so organized that the interplay between the elements sets up a complex of meaning in which" White "wins through to his final utterance."14 13 Jeffrey Meyers, editor, Robert Lowell: Interviews and Memoirs, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1988, p.127. 14 David Daiches, op.cit., p.161. 6
  • 7. Again, the analysis could continue, but this is the reader's task. "Criticism is the endeavour" wrote Saintsbury back in 1911, "to find, to know, to love and to recommend the best that is known and written in the world,"15 but not to explain every detail. Poetry is most fully realized when a reader's mind subjects that poetry to their own serious and systematic contemplation. In the process the poetry is raised up to "its highest possibility," writes Richard Kuhns.16 I will deal now with another poem which, though rooted in a literal historical personality, recreates it. Solemnity is coated with the colloquial, with the idiom of the everyday, its simple cliches and a sense of immediacy. I am talking here of the first poem in the book The True Brother, although I could have chosen many others. Shoghi Effendi is brought into the here and now. The reader engages with a Central Figure of his Faith in a unique, a fresh, a human, a probing way. An inner landscape is seen with a quiet eye The poem opens: You........ Across the Twin resplendent seas which cast this pearl we ask what praise is adequate to you? A simple question is conjoined with what, to Baha'is, is some familiar nomenclature: 'Twin resplendent seas.' So the poem begins in its unassuming way. It continues: 15 George Saintsbury, A History of English Criticism, William Blackwood and Sons Ltd., London, 1911, p.522. 16 Richard Kuhns, op.cit., p.83. 7
  • 8. You....... who knew far more than we how little was the little that we knew. After nearly twenty years these lines have become a type of bottom-line, a fundamental starting position in my relation to and understanding of, Shoghi Effendi. And yet the words are so simple, so easy, so profoundly basic. The poem ends with the following two stanzas: You...... how belatedly we see that you were more than brother, more than true. You........ through a mercy we've not earned O! comfort us who did not comfort you....... Such pure symmetry. If there is such a thing as a perfect poem, this one is mine. How does one define a perfect poem? Which one will be yours? I had had a love for Shoghi Effendi for perhaps twenty-five years when I read this poem in 1983 but White gave me words, expressed a feeling, that had been inside me. This is one of the 8
  • 9. reasons for his great popularity. I find White a superbly rational poet. It is a rationality that arises from, in the words of Susanne Langer, "an elaboration of feeling."17 Perhaps, too, what White does here and in so many of his poems is to take the imprecise, the vague and undefined, unexpressed feelings and thoughts of life that we encounter again and again and give them form, precision, definition. And some readers find it thrilling, beautiful. The remaining six sections of this book of poetry are all shorter than the opening one called 'The Witness of Pebbles.' I will not attempt to examine all the directions and thrusts these poems take in each section. Rather I will make some selections of poems I particularly enjoyed and comment on them as a way of introducing this book of White's poetry. The second section is called 'Songs and Sonnets' and contains twenty-two poems. White's poem Coral and Pearls was written for Hilda and Morrie Phillips and the title comes from the words of a marriage prayer by 'Abdu'l-Baha. It is written in the form of a sonnet, one of the many sonnets in this section. I find the poem is much like another of White's poems on marriage Mark's Madrigal which we will discuss later in this essay only there is not that humorous undercurrent here. This poem is serious all the way. "The only chance of doing some arresting writing, something that the world is waiting for with open arms," writes Marilyn Kallet," is to be ready." In the late 1970s and early 1980s, White was ready. There was a world of underlying meaning waiting to be recovered like metal out of ore. That world could be found in Baha'i history, in relationships, in day-to-day life, all over the 17 Susanne Langer, Problems of Art, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1957, p.124. Roger White, The Witness of Pebbles, p.62. Marilyn Kallet, Honest Simplicity in William Carlos Williams' "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," Louisiana State UP, Baton Rouge, 1985, p.21. 9
  • 10. mountains and hills of existence. This poem is an engagment with the institution of marriage. Again, many of the lines in the poem require time, thought and the engagement of the reader. This is no quick stroll through an in-depth magazine article on marriage in the weekend supplement. Like so much of White's poetry, be prepared for contemplation, for pondering. He takes you into your inner life by way of the thinking process. His poetry engages you in a process that some have called the raid on the inarticulate. It is a process of persuasion, of ambush, of dogged hunting and sometimes of surrender but, however you describe it, this thinking process must be set in motion or your minds will lie, as English poet Ted Hughes once wrote, "like fish in the pond of a man who cannot fish."18 But to return to Mark's Madrigal. I won't go through every line in the poem; I'll leave that to you with your own copy of The Witness of Pebbles. But I'll examine several of the provocative and somewhat demanding lines: ...................................It is your unmingled light, Inviolate, self-kindled and enhancing that might Tempt my pride to snuff it, eclipse the inner white Wonder my warrant forged in passion cannot own. Teach me that not in trespass do I harvest more Than your surging tenderness yields to my sight. I find these lines just enthralling in their meaning and beauty, perhaps this is due to the fact that it had taken me some thirty years of marriage to learn them. It is passages 18 Ted Hughes, quoted in Ted Hughes: A Critical Study, Terry Gifford and Neil Roberts, Faber and Faber, London, 1981, p.39. 10
  • 11. like these that have made me a White-fan, perhaps fanatic. "The inner white wonder" is a delightful and wondrous phrase to describe both the external and inner beauty of a woman. It is this "inner white wonder" that gets eclipsed and snuffed out in marital relationships. The "warrant", is something which authorizes action, in this case a something "forged in passion" which cannot be owned. How many men--and women--have 'trespassed' and 'harvested' more than they should have, more than "surging tenderness" yielded. In the end each reader has to unpack each poem for themselves. I've just taken a few items out of the suitcase here to start the ball rolling, to do some intellectual and spiritual travelling. And, of course, poems that work for me will not necessarily work for you. It must be admitted, too, that some of White's poems, more for me in The Witness of Pebbles, have implications and bearings that are difficult to grasp, an inevitability in a poet whose appeal is not to the interests and caprices of the market, who does not beat the big drum or shout his wares. The voice of the intellect, Freud once said, is quiet. The third section of this book is called 'The Milk, The Honey' and its twenty-four poems are all 'from Israel.' There are many poems about the Baha'i World Centre in White's opus; I'd like to briefly comment on his poem The Artefact written in the years immediately preceding the occupation by the Universal House of Justice of its permanent seat on the slopes of Mount Carmel above the Arc. I'm not sure I understand all the poem, but I understand enough of it to give me a deep satisfaction from reading it. And I read it again and again enjoying what I do understand and trying to understand more. Poetry is undoubtedly, among other things, an exploratory activity and White explores the beauty of the Baha'i Faith, a 11
  • 12. beauty expressed in the developments on Mt. Carmel, in Baha'i history and in the Baha'i teachings generally. Poetry also deals with things that touch us deeply and is a place of pollination and cross-pollination for the actual, enlarging on, engaging in, life as it goes. Like the poet William Carlos Williams, White wants to make the unknown shine, like a sunrise.19 The known in this poem is the religion White joined over thirty years before and White in a short epigraph offers a cautionary note from William Collins, a Baha'i then working at the Baha'i World Centre: "We must resist the temptation to intellectually distance ourselves from the living reality of the Cause of God, enclosing it in a glass coffin of our pride's devising, which we circumambulate admiring our own handiwork." White begins the poem comparing the Cause to "a shipwrecked victim washed ashore"20 who has been "coffined...in glass." Having "set it in a place of honour in the central square" we came to "stare or lean above her." No one, White continues, now near the end of the second of three stanzas, asked "what exquisite power she might wield." No one asked what the effect of "Such intolerable beauty" could have, although it was thought it could "disregulate the city's ordered ways." Some of the greatest poetry is to be found at the beginning of things: Homer at the start of Greek civilization, Pindar at the start of the great experiment in Athenian democracy; Virgil at the start of the Roman Empire, Shakespeare at the start of the modern age, arguably White at the start of the great drama in democratic theocracy or the process of the institutionalization of charisma that is at the heart of the development of the Baha'i Faith. Each poet provides his readers with a 19 William Carlos Williams, Autobiography, p.1. Roger White, op.cit.,p.96. 20 idem 12
  • 13. Weltanschauung, a world view, a perspective on the world that gives it coherence, meaning, a framework. In the final stanza of the poem under consideration White writes: Long she lay there and we grew accustomed to the crystal concentrate of beauty ............... grateful that grace be so contained as to pose no threat This poem is often difficult to contain, to get at or to. By 1980, the Baha'is had been on Mt. Carmel for about a century. The Bab's remains had been entombed on Mt. Carmel for some seventy years; the Guardian had been gone for nearly twenty-five. One of the main functions of poetry is to put in verse some of the intense emotion that accumulates in life. White's poem does this. It begins in delight, as Robert Frost once said, and ends in wisdom 21 or, as Wordsworth once put it more mysteriously: ...............................Visionary power Attends the motions of the viewless winds, Embodied in the mystery of words22 And there is a mystery to White's words, not all the time, but from time to time and in specific poems like the one being discussed here. There is something that tantalizes; there's a fragrance, but you've got to like White's perfume. He integrates thought and 21 Robert Frost in Coleridge on the Language of Verse, Emerson R. Marks, Princeton UP, 1981, p.108. 22 William Wordsworth, Prelude V: lines 595-97. 13
  • 14. imagination, he achieves a high intensity of poetic and imaginative awareness, in his writing of poetry. He shares this with his readers and through a participation in a common past, a common memory, from which his stories, his poems, are so often drawn, there is a revivification of the virtues inherent in sacred places and people. Often people and places in history elude us and unless they can be given life in poetry or some form of art they are lost to us. They remain as dry dust in history books. White so often brings, awakens, a sense of Presence, of the Divine, in some historical setting. White or his poetry bestows a benediction, a sense of blessedness, upon some of those who read his poetry. The renewed awareness that these readers gain becomes a source of and support for personal conviction and both the individual and the community are strengthened. White helps these readers create their world. He creates it out of himself sub specie aeternitatis. In the remaining four sections of The Witness of Pebbles White gives us poems with religious feeling that deepen our awareness of life, poems that increase our sense of identity and self-understanding, poems that have a simple grace of image and style, poems that are poeticized prose, poems that deal with the enigma of life's transience and art's enduring truth, poems that present a Baha'i analysis of history as a divinely ordained and logical process and this era as a transition to an expanded identity and humankind's maturity, more poems that are tragi-comic and much more. Perhaps Mark's Madrigal23 will illustrate some of my main contentions about White's poetry more graphically. The history here is not the history of the Baha'i Faith but the 23 Roger White, op.cit., pp.115-116. 14
  • 15. history, the experience, of so many millions in the marriage relationship. The poem opens with some of that colloquial tone and dramatic speech: Breathes there the man so limp with dread Who never of his wife hath said, 'I love the wench but wish her dead!' The rhyme, the lightness, the humour and the tragi-comic continue: O lissom lass, O languid lad, In wedlock are love's lessons had. Then White, having got his reader gently swimming along in this casually poetic idiom starts to get serious and a little elliptical. The reader has got to do a little work: Were freedom gained what is allowed But from the stranger's hand a shroud? How many people, feeling imprisoned and gaining their 'freedom' experience a 'shroud' from a 'stranger'? A second relationship so often just does not have the anticipated pay-off. Some readers will go all the way with White in these lines. White keeps the tone and the style light, engaging, irreverent, calling a spade a spade: Lives there the woman so unsound 15
  • 16. Who never thought, in marriage bound, I'll sleep best when he's underground!' ..... For all are granted fleeting terms And restive are the amorous worms. ...... "What chain hath love that rubs me raw?" Then, in the last three stanzas, in lines that could come from one of Shakespeare's sonnets, thought-provoking words and ideas, some enigmatic, some solemn and serious: Both winsome maid and handsome squire Know love's the chief prize we acquire But count it, wed or celibate, A hellish torment, soon or late. So: love is something we 'acquire' and we may have to experience 'a hellish torment.' And we reach the climax, the finale in the last two stanzas: 'Tis not the mate by whom we're soured But love itself which proves us coward To tame the fear's to tame the fire, 'Tis fear of love of which we tire. 16
  • 17. Have done, good folks, with suffering, Brave choice secures diviner thing. Love won by courage shall endure For love, methinks, is love's own cure. Rejoice, rejoice in love!24 There is a great deal said here about love in the same way that Shakespeare packed a great deal in in his sonnets. There is a profundity here as there was in Shakespeare but the reader does not have to puzzle over the meaning to anything like the same extent. The reward, the pay-off, in meaning in this poem of White's is reflected in these words of Marilyn Kallet: "The poem is a kind of flower....rich with the truth of our lives, a working through of the poet's experience of hurting, healing and preparation through love."25 White sprinkles humour throughout this his second booklet of poetry. It is part of White's signature. He opens his final section, "Toddling Toward Salvation" with a quotation from Thomas Carlyle: "Laughter is a token of virtue. No man who has once heartily and wholly laughed can be altogether irreclaimably bad."26 I think it is this laughter that allows White to get away with some profoundly serious poetry in between the laughs, poetry that is not just serious and profound but very provocative, very challenging and, at times, threatening to much of our conventional thinking, both as Baha'is and the world of liberal and secular thought. 24 idem 25 Marilyn Kallet, Honest Simplicity in William Carlos Williams' "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," Louisiana State UP, Baton Rouge, 1985, p.15. 26 Thomas Carlyle in Roger White, op.cit., p.188. 17
  • 18. I'd like to close this analysis of The Witness of Pebbles with two such examples. I could choose two from at least a batch of half a dozen poems which made me think quite seriously about their implications. "A poem," as John Hatcher emphasizes in his analysis of the poetic process, "is written to be experienced, not dissected."27 The poem A Sudden Music I experienced with some force nearly twenty years ago when I first read it. I'd like to dissect the poem to some extent to try and explain the source of, the reason for, the impact this poem had on me. The poem establishes for me an honesty, an introspectivity, a framework for the examination of the forms of prayer, indeed my very interaction process with others. The poem makes me take a look at myself. It begins A taint of preening calculation makes of our knowledge knowingness, carries us too soon from innocence and exaltation. I'd call the law that White invokes the "is this me?" law. Have I been carried away by habit, by years of experience and familiarity, from my original sense of innocence and sense of exaltation? Yes and no, I say to myself. Do I make of my knowing, now that I know so very much more than I used to when I first became a Baha'i, a "knowingness?" Do I do any 'preening' of myself in all this knowingness? Yes and no I say to myself. White is struggling and taking us along with him in this struggle to reach higher levels of spiritual reality. He is struggling, to use Plato's analogy of the 27 John Hatcher, From the Auroral Darkness, George Ronald, Oxford, 1984, p.240. Roger White, op.cit. pp.80-1. 18
  • 19. cave, to find the light of understanding from the images cast on the dark walls of life. White is the active explorer shining the lamp of his poetic insight into the dark shadows of our lives. Who can fail to be stimulated into an introspection in relation to their spiritual life by the following lines which close the poem: We, deft practioners of protocols of piety are stranded on uncertainty who had entered and then left that rare Presence, rehearsed petitioners, joylessly and empty-handed.? Writing poems was for White, as it was for Robert Hayden before him in this emergence of a Baha'i consciousness in world literature, "a way of coming to grips with inner and outer realities, a spiritual act, a sort of prayer for illumination." Writing poems was a way of enriching human experience by poetic translation of its particulars, a way of continually scrutinizing his own experience for answers that could often not be final ones, final statements, just points along the road of analysis and description.28 His poems were ultimately acts of consciousness triggered by life, by the intensity of the mind and the imagination of a man who could be safely and logically called a great devotional poet. Fred M. Fetrow, Robert Hayden, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1984, p.58. 28 ibid., p. 101. 19
  • 20. The spiritual life, one's own spiritual life, certainly needs to be examined and reexamined. This poem, with many others, provides a point of reflection for the "deft practitioners," the "rehearsed petitioners" who attempt to experience that "rare Presence." In some ways, too, this poem is a meditation on the words of the Bab: "The most acceptable prayer is the one offered with the utmost spirituality and radiance; its prolongation hath not been and is not beloved of God."29 In the middle of the poem, having opened and closed the poem expressing with serious doubts about the value of his "protocols of piety," White inserts the dramatic account of a "pilgrim child" who was happy while at the Master's Shrine and "broke into dance rapturously." As White put it in an earlier poem "it is joy that is remembered." A final poem from The Witness of Pebbles is another personal reflection on the spiritual journey, on the spiritual value of the phenomenal world. White gives his insight an artistic form so that others may share in his perception. White is, among other things, a perceiver and maker of symbols and metaphors. This is certainly at the centre of how White articulates his role, his station, as poet, how he interprets his world. As another Louis Simpson has stated, discussing the metaphorical process at the heart of poetry, "Metaphor is a process of comparing and identifying one thing with another....the ability to see the relation between one thing and another is almost a definition of intelligence."30 Of course each reader's task is to give their own meaning to the symbol or metaphor. Each of us must do that task for ourselves. At the start of the poem The Other Shore I see that shore as death, the end of a journey, a personal goal, some promising part of the future. White tells us at the start of the poem: Let us not stroke too swiftly toward 29 Selections from the Writings of the Bab, Haifa,1976, p.78. Roger White, "Lines from a Battlefield," Another Song, p.112. 30 Louis Simpson, An Introduction to Poetry, St. Martin's Press, NY, 1967, p.6. 20
  • 21. the green opposite shore where death rehearses. This third line brings the focus of the metaphor to 'shore=death.' White continues: .............................we have tried these pearl-promising waves before and might guess the danger. So many times in life we get our hopes up high in relation to some event or process and there is disappointment and loss. Hope gets a kick in the teeth so to speak. White suggests that this experience we all have at one time or another should caution us to view death with some caution, some sense of the possibilities of danger. Continuing the metaphor in the second stanza, the metaphor of shore, waves and sand, White writes: Recall how always we turn back spent to the sun-warmed sand and stand anguished in separate solitudes though hand in hand, each to each grown stranger. For me, White is widening the metaphor here, to include not just the shore but the place where we go in the summer to swim and enjoy ourselves. We go there every summer. We seek life's pleasures quite naturally but, so often, these pleasures lead us 21
  • 22. to an aloneness. No matter how close we get to those we love, there is a fundamental aloneness we all must face in life and the experience is often most acute in our most personal of relationships with family and friends. The final stanza is for me the most enigmatic. I have to work hardest to make out its meaning. The language is veiled. But of course, as John Hatcher points out perhaps with more emphasis than anything else he has said in his several books now on the subject, "every man's principle goal in his physical experience (is) the discerning of spiritual meaning in phenomenal reality and the subsequent incorporation of that insight into deeds."31 Here is the phenomenal reality White closes his poem with: Not that the brave bird lied. But that we, young, too soon said Land! Land! and, plunging, did not see his torn pinion, his bloodied head. Ease us, wise love, toward this wet danger. The question, of course, is, 'what does this mean?' White so often himself said, "don't ask me what it means!" It is the task of the reader to give the poem meaning, indeed, to give his life meaning. Just as the stones, "every least pebble...resound again with Thy praise," so, too, may our own dear lives find "wings" and "ladders" for our ascent so that we may understand the deeper meanings of existence--and the beauty of the last stanza of a poem like this. 31 John Hatcher, From the Auroral Darkness, George Ronald, Oxford, 1984, p.244. 22
  • 23. Part of the poet's task is to give historical perspective to an era, an epoch, an age. White here is talking to me about my experience since the 1950s in both the Baha'i community and in my personal life. Back in the late 1950s as a young Baha'i I had far too high an expectation regarding the response of western society to the religion I had come to believe in. No one had lied to me; "the big bird," whoever it was that planted the latest wisdom in my mind, had left my impressionable soul with the view that the world was going to respond to the Cause in much greater numbers than it did. And marriage was going to be a much easier process than I had ever anticipated. But in the next forty years I experience "his torn pinion" "his bloodied head." Was it mine? Was it my society? My religion? You read the poem and your mind plays with the options, the optional meaning systems that poetry presents. For White's readers are examining, they are part of that wider process: The Witness of Pebbles. 23